Meet Jenny Graham – and let the world record holder take you on a tour of Scotland’s Adventure Coast.
Last year Mark Beaumont and I worked on two ‘Explore Your Boundaries’ films. The first one captured our winter ride along the periphery of Edinburgh on the 2 January. Planning this route, an idea born out of the lockdown that kept us close to home during the Christmas of 2020, encouraged us to map the boundaries of 25 different councils across Scotland. After riding around Edinburgh the route around Midlothian was accessible within the restrictions we faced back then. And once travel became possible again, we teamed up with Visit East Lothian, Falkirk and Clackmannanshire Councils and Vango to cycle another four routes and produced a second film, which was published in February this year.
The release of the second film also coincided with handing in words and pictures for the last route in my book ‘Great British Gravel Rides’. The book is as much a portrait of the gravel bike community in Britain as it is a guide book, in which 25 people share their favourite routes across the country. Great British Gravel Rides opens with a scenic but technically demanding route across the Scottish Highlands – something you would expect of the fastest woman to cycle around the world – Jenny Graham.
Based close to the Capital of the Highlands, Inverness, Jenny went on to become a GCN presenter after her round the world trip. With her infectious enthusiasm she was the perfect choice to extend our team when it came to continuing the Explore Your Boundaries project in Argyll this year. I floated the idea with Jenny on our joint two-day adventure from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, and it didn’t need much to convince her.
‘I am born and bred in the Highlands of Scotland, and being out on our bikes and exploring on foot is in our DNA up here.’
Riding a bike was part of Jenny’s life since she was a kid, either for getting to a place or playing around the Scottish city of Inverness. It was when her son Lachlan started school, that Jenny used her spare time to take up cycling as a sport, mountain biking in particular. Back then a three-hour ride was a pretty big deal for her, but she was drawn to the wild places the bike took her. As her son got older and more independent, they spent a lot of time cycling together. She gained a number of national qualifications, and started guiding young people from the Highlands and created bespoke trips for people to show them around the Highlands.
‘It was never about getting fit enough to go around the world, it was always this curiosity of how far I could travel on my bike.’
When her son became a teenager, Jenny could spend even more time on gathering experience and being out on the bike. What first started as a hobby, became a career. While getting long rides in, she had herself questioning how many miles a day she could do. Jenny was in her mid 30s. Things had fallen into place in her life, and she was confident that she would be capable of breaking the women’s round the world record. She had built up skills and experience since her first introduction to cycling at 23, and now at the age of 38, she was ready to have a go.
‘There was no one at home sorting things for me. Keeping on top of my timings became more and more difficult when I was out there. It’s difficult to keep that at the forefront of your mind, because you’re so busy looking after yourself and making sure that your basic needs are being met.’
When Jenny arrived at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on 18 October 2018, she completed her unsupported circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle in 124 days, 10 hours and 50 minutes, setting a new world record. Although she missed the target she had set herself, averaging 180 miles (290km) per day, mainly due to fatigue and weather conditions in Australia and New Zealand, she averaged an impressive 156 miles (254km) per day. And her last leg involved an all-nighter. Cycling for 30 hours straight and covering over 300 miles (482km), Jenny made it to the finish in Berlin to complete her cycling mission.
‘Getting to the start line of that trip was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done.’
While Jenny’s experience at the finish was a mixture of exhaustion and shock, the real accomplishment for her was getting the start line. When she was greeted by friends and family in Berlin it was hard to process what had just happened, but looking back she is incredibly proud of making the decision to set off and putting all effort into making the trip become reality. After months and months of talking about the trip, and the battles she came across to make it happen, she felt a huge euphoria and a whoosh of emotions when she was finally on her way.
‘You need to get out riding and then hopefully the community builds around you.’
Getting to the start line was the most crucial ingredient for Jenny to successfully complete her world record ride. And her advice for others who want to embark on a multi-day bikepacking adventure, is quite simple: Putting yourself out there by saying that you’re going to do things is good. But actually doing it is the most crucial thing. Clubs and cycling groups can be a help for first timers in her opinion, as well as social media and word of mouth. Once the virtual start line is crossed, a community starts building around you.
‘We need to see that there’s a place for them in this world. Having a variety of faces, colours, shapes and voices out there is hugely important. I think it can only inspire more and can create content for everyone, and make the world a little bit fairer.’
At the beginning Jenny doubted whether she was educated enough or had enough money to be an adventurer. She couldn’t see anyone like her doing those things, adventuring seemed to be the domain of the wealthy. For Jenny, representation of minority groups, so people can picture themselves doing it, is key to get a more diverse group of people into cycling. As is hearing those stories of people that come into cycling and adventuring through another field.
‘We could get on these bikes and travel fairly fast. It was really good fun, just coming on and off roads into wild places, then cycling down glens. That bit captured me, the journey aspect is what makes me reach for the gravel bike each time.’
Jenny’s journey into gravel riding was slow to start with. She wasn’t a fan at the beginning. The gravel bike didn’t go as fast as she wanted on the road, and it also didn’t do what she expected of a mountain bike. It was a joint trip with Lee Craigie from the Adventure Syndicate, crossing Scotland from North to South, that finally changed her mind. The variety of terrain that the gravel bikes they used could cover was what triggered Jenny to rethink, and since then a gravel bike has become a stable companion on her adventures. For exploring the boundary of Argyll she used a titanium Sonder Camino gravel bike with Schwalbe G-One Bites tyres and Restrap Adventure Race bags.
‘Every time I’ve been here I’ve just been blown away by the coastline, and I think that’s the bit that gets me.’
For Jenny the trip to Argyll offered a great adventure in a, so far, little known part of Scotland to her. Born and bred here she knows the northern part of the country very well, but hadn’t explored very much in Argyll. If you watch ‘Explore Your Boundaries – Argyll and the Isles’ you’ll be convinced that it certainly wasn’t Jenny’s last visit to this stunning part of Scotland. And if you haven’t visited Scotland’s Adventure Coast yet, her enthusiasm will make you reach for your bike and explore! Don’t wait, the route can be found on Komoot here.
And for more inspiration you can follow Jenny Graham on Instagram, she has just returned from a fat bike adventure in Mongolia, which will be on GCN Plus in the near future.
The pictures featured in this blog are by Maciek Tomiczek, who joined us on the last part of the trip and also photographed the front cover of Great British Gravel Rides.
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